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Baltics bidding for NATO top job forces leadership discussion – Latvian FM

Krisjanis Karins in Tallinn on November 24, 2023.
Krisjanis Karins in Tallinn on November 24, 2023. Source: Katrīna Laura Tkačenko/ Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Estonian and Latvian ministers putting themselves forward as "unofficial candidates" for NATO's secretary general can "force the discussion" about who can lead the alliance, Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs Krisjanis Karins said in an interview with ERR News. Karins announced his interest in the job earlier this month.

The foreign minister visited Tallinn on November 26 for the opening of the 29th Baltic Council and to hand out the Estonian-Latvian joint literature prize.

Krisjanis Karins has been Latvia's foreign minister since September 2023 and before that, he had held the post of prime minister for over four years. Born and raised in the Latvian diaspora in the U.S. he has been active in Latvia's domestic politics since the early 2000s. He has also represented Latvia as a member of the European parliament.

ERR News spoke with Karins about his bid for the NATO secretary general position, how smaller countries can make their voices heard on the international stage, how they can speak to the "global south," and Baltic cooperation.

On running for NATO secretary general

Karins recently announced he was putting himself forward as a candidate for NATO's top job if Latvia would back the proposal. The alliance needs to replace Jens Stoltenberg next summer, but it has no formal application process for doing so.

Krisjanis Karins speaking at the Riigikogu in Tallinn on November 24, 2023. Source: Katrīna Laura Tkačenko/ Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Karins said the Netherlands' long-term prime minister Mark Rutte is the only "official candidate" so far, adding his own bid is "not in any way anything against" Rutte. "I can only speak well of him," the foreign minister said.

Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform), who has also signaled her interest, is "absolutely qualified" and would also be a "very good," the politician said.

When asked why candidates from smaller countries need to put themselves forward, Karins said this is needed to "force the discussion" about who is fit to lead the alliance.

"Is it still the case that to be a NATO general secretary, you have to come from the Netherlands or Scandinavia? From the, as we say, established countries, or is NATO now mature enough to consider leaders from other regions?" he said.

"I think it will help to force the discussion. What about the Baltics? What about the East?

"So by having two leaders from the Baltics, I think it helps to shift the focus on asking the question, raising awareness and a sense of pride in the Baltics themselves, but also in, shall we say, the established capitals – that they would have to think twice [about who gets the job]."

Jens Stoltenberg. Autor/allikas: NATO

Karins dismissed arguments against the Baltics, such as their perceived "hawkishness" against Russia.

"I would say that of any of the countries within NATO that are interested in peace, it is the Baltics because we understand what war would mean in our territory," the minister said.

He also has little time for prioritizing old member states over newer members. The Baltic states joined NATO in 2004, almost 20 years ago, but the alliance was founded in 1949.

"I think it's important to note that as countries we have matured and our politics has matured, that we have leaders who've been around the table long enough and know all the colleagues," he said. "Mark Rutte's acquaintance with colleagues is not fundamentally different from Kaja Kallas' or my own."

On Latvia's UNSC bid and being "fit for purpose"

Latvia recently launched its bid to become a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for 2026-2027. But with Russia vetoing decisions by the OSCE and the UN, why bother with these organizations anymore?

A UNSC sitting in progress. Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Karins said they are still important and "especially" so for small countries as they need to be part of the agenda-setting and decision-making processes. He said larger countries can afford to be "a little more lazy," because their opinions will always be sought, but small countries need to be "much more active and that much better to be on par".

"But actually, we are that much more active and I would also say that much better," he said.

Estonia was a non-permanent member in 2020-2021 and was able to put regional issues, such as the fallout from the Belarusian presidential election, on the table during this time. Karins said Latvia sees Estonia's term as successful for this reason.

"You cannot change the veto in countries' minds but you can raise awareness and put certain issues to a vote. And that's why we have to be there," the minister said.

"We don't know what will happen and what the security situation will be like in a couple of years' time, but we can probably be certain that, unfortunately, it probably won't be much more peaceful than it is today."

Asked if reform is needed and if some countries should be removed, Karins said: "There's a political term that's used in Europe – fit for purpose. Is the current construct fit for purpose? My initial answer is no. Then what needs to be changed? And that's the discussion that we need to have."

Latvia is bidding for a seat on the United Nations Security Council for 2026-2027. Source: Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The UN is "deeply problematic" as aggressor nations, such as Russia, are given vetos, he said.

"So there needs to be a reform of the UN, at least the Security Council... Where probably the mix of countries and regions needs to be adjusted," the minister said, adding Africa could be better represented.

On speaking to the "global south" and the Baltics' "believability" factor

Earlier this year, Karins said the Baltics could play a larger role in diplomacy with countries formerly part of European empires, such as in Africa, South America, or Asia. As countries formerly occupied by the Soviet Union, they can draw on their common understanding of history. The Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also suggested this.

Russia is active in these areas, and the EU is trying to be as well. This has not always been easy to explain the situation after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, for example.

Karins suggested European policy does not have to be led by member states with which these countries have "difficult relationships." "That makes the relationship inherently fraught," he said.

European Union flag. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

"We [the Baltics] can certainly understand nations that have been occupied or colonized by somebody else, because we've had that experience... I have spoken with leaders and that really opens up their ears because I remind them that Russia colonized and occupied the Baltics and they did the same in Ukraine. Then Ukraine became independent and now they're trying to get Ukraine back within the empire.

"And when we say that, we have a potentially larger believability because it has happened to us."

This is also part of a bigger change to Latvia's foreign policy. Until now, it has had "two fundamental pillars," the first being the EU, and the second NATO and the transatlantic relationship.

"This will remain unchanged for very obvious reasons," he said. "But what I'm interested in expanding is a third dimension, which is relations with third countries."

Karins said there are no plans to expand Latvia's embassy network in the near future, due to costs, but there are plans to expand diplomatic efforts to "venues where there are many leaders coming together." The country is looking to "extend the hand of friendship" and expand its business diplomacy, he said.

Additionally, there are signs Central Asia wants to strengthen ties with Europe, as it seeks to change its historical relationship with Russia.

On Baltic cooperation

Krisjanis Karins, and Gabrielius Landsbergis, and Margus Tsahkna in Tallinn on November 24, 2023. Source: Katrīna Laura Tkačenko/ Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Karins said Baltic and regional cooperation is "very close and very intense" and stronger than it has ever been on international issues.

"I suppose it also has a lot to do with the fact that we actually have no serious disputes," he said. "No one in any one country imagines that they're better or have any, you know, we all understand that we only stand to gain."

"For example with Latvia and Estonia, I honestly cannot think of any one issue where we have disagreements," he said. "And because we don't have to talk about difficulties, we can talk about what should we do together."

The politician said he believes cooperation between the Baltics is "almost closer" than between the Benelux countries: Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg.

"What is important to note is that every time there's a situation which is problematic, that's when we really come together," Karins says.

The minister also said if the migrant pressure recently seen at the Finnish border, which Latvia has experienced since 2021, moves to Estonia, the Latvian government will send help "immediately."

On Nordic-Baltic cooperation

Defense ministers from Denmark, Finland, Estonia, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway at the Joint Expeditionary Force meeting in Amsterdam, June 13, 2023. Source: Ministry of Defense

Talking about Sweden's NATO accession process, Karins' said there is "no indication" that Hungary or Turkey's parliaments will not hold votes to ratify the process or that the outcome "would be negative."

Due to Finland joining NATO and Sweden's bid, another "positive note" is the expansion of cooperation across the whole Nordic-Baltic region, he said.

The foreign minister said amplifying the region's voice is a priority.

He said these countries also have a common understanding of how to deal with Russia and that as a "combined unit" their voice has "more weight."

"There's an arc of understanding across the north of Europe that goes all the way to Great Britain. But that arc is actually quite clear and united."

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Editor: Marcus Turovski, Andrew Whyte

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